Heath, Ian. Byzantine Armies, 886-1118.

(Men-at-Arms series, 89) London: Osprey Publishing, 1979.

Our view of the Eastern Roman Empire — ruled from Constantinople, ex-Byzantium, hence “Byzantine” — tends even today to have a distinct western bias. Even the word “Byzantine” carries the meaning of “ridiculously convoluted and probably underhanded.”

But the Byzantines were extremely astute and sophisticated in political and military matters. They were very good at the whole empire thing, lasting rather longer than the “Roman Romans” did, right up until the city finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453. We tend also to sneer at the Byzantines’ policy of simply buying off those who threatened them, ignoring the fact that spending 100,000 ounces of silver on a bribe was cheaper than spending 500,000 on a war — not to mention the lives saved. But when warfare was necessary, the imperial government could field a first-rate army, too, drawing on a large number of subject peoples with an array of weapons and tactical skills.

The author’s credentials are not noted anywhere (an unusual lapse for this series) but he obviously has a strong background in the classics and especially in Greek history. While the overview he provides of the organization of the imperial army and its sources of manpower is pretty good, he tends to go a bit overboard with the technical jargon, which may require one to back up and re-read a section every couple of pages. He also quotes from various classical authors without commenting on why they are important. Finally, some readers might wish he hadn’t limited himself to only 250 years, but this actually is the middle volume of a trilogy covering the whole history of the empire. And the color plates, Osprey’s specialty, are well up to the usual standard. (Although there is one kataphractos who bears a remarkable resemblance to Sean Connery. . . .)

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Published in: on 19 August 2012 at 12:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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